Mike Tomlin is in his 11th season as the Steelers coach and in almost every interaction with the media, he has answered the questions put to him. Typically, those answers offer little in the way of insight because in today’s NFL every bit of information, no matter how seemingly innocuous, is guarded like a state secret. So it was somewhat surprising to see Tomlin speak frankly about the 2017 Steelers, who at 9-2 are the AFC’s No. 1 team but have yet to play up to their preseason expectations.
“Oh, we can win it all,” Tomlin told NBC’s Tony Dungy when asked how good his team can be. “We should win it all. I think that’s my mentality. I think that’s their mentality. But I’m less concerned about that and more concerned about what are the things that we’re going to do along the way to make that happen.”
To be fair, every coach has this thought at some point during the year. For many, it’s in the offseason, when they’re assembling their roster. For others, it’s as the season progresses and their team outperforms expectations. But Tomlin also did something coaches rarely do — he looked ahead. Specifically, to the Steelers’ Week 15 matchup against the Patriots.
“I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room. There’s going to be fireworks [in Week 15],” Tomlin said. “But it’s probably going to be part one. You know?”
The implication? The Steelers and Patriots will likely meet in the playoffs too.
“You’ll burn more fuel trying to pretend like that doesn’t exist than just to acknowledge the elephant in the room,” he continued. “Man, that’s going to be a big game. But probably if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to do, the second one is really going to be big and what happens in the first is going to set up the second one. It’s going to determine the location of the second one. You know?”
Tomlin isn’t wrong. The Steelers’ best chance to beat the Patriots — something they’ve struggled to do during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era — will come at Heinz Field. And for that to happen, Pittsburgh probably needs to win their remaining regular-season games, including that aforementioned Week 15 get-together. Either way, know that Belichick will be showing these comments to his team.
So why was Tomlin suddenly so forthcoming? Dungy gave Tomlin his first NFL job, hiring hims as a defensive assistant in Tampa Bay in 2001. The two remain close. And it was that relationship that allowed Tomlin to speak openly, even if the cameras were rolling (and Belichick was watching).
“He asked for non-coachspeak, so I was having a conversation with an old friend,” Tomlin said, via the team’s official website. “You know I have respect for this process. We have a good football team. I got a great deal of confidence in them. Everybody in America knows that’s a big game. We couldn’t deny that if we wanted to. You guys are going to ask us about it between now and then, so I stand by the statement.”
Fair enough. But here’s the deal: If the Steelers play against the Patriots like they did against the Packers on Sunday night (Pittsburgh was 14-point favorites; it took a last-second, 53-yard field goal to eke out the win), they’ll lose by 50 points.